From the perspective of a nature photographer who has spent a lot of time in the national parks of the west, I want to share some tips about what to expect, what to bring and how to prepare yourself for the experience. What to bring differs based on potential subject matter. Each park offers a different variety of things to photograph. Furthermore, each visit to the same park at different times of the year provides a different variety of subjects and lighting angles. As you can start to see, each new variable opens up new possibilities, so first and foremost, do your homework.
Research: During each season, each park offers the prepared photographer specific subjects. Knowing when they’re at their peak is key. For instance, ask just about anyone, “When do most flowers bloom?” and their response will be spring and summer. They’d be absolutely correct. But if you adhere to this natural cycle and go to Death Valley or the deserts of the southwest in June or July and expect to see peak wildflowers, you’ll be very disappointed. Knowing when baby elk appear in Yellowstone, knowing when stormy seas erupt along the Oregon coast, knowing at what time of year the light strikes Delicate Arch to make it glow, knowing when the full moon aligns with your favorite geologic feature, etc., all come from experience, knowledge and research.
Gear: Question 1—what’s the primary subject matter you want to photograph? Question 2—what other possibilities might you encounter? The answers to these questions should dictate what you bring. While I don’t encourage you to become an equipment junkie and bring a duffel bag’s worth of gear, I do urge you to bring enough to cover most subject matter. For the one or two shots you may miss because you left ITEM Z home, your back will thank you in the long run. If scenery is the focal point, don’t leave home without a polarizer or set of graduated neutral density filters. Make sure you pack the wide angles. How wide of a lens do you need? This should be dictated based on the research you did of the subject matter and locations—now you realize the importance of doing research. The same goes for the telephoto end. On some of my predominately scenic photo tours I have participants bring their Nikon 80-400 or Canon 100-400 in that there are too many long lens scenic shots to leave it home. It’s not the lens one would expect to tote around for scenery, but knowing the location and what to bring are essential.
What to Expect: So you have a trip planned to photograph the wildflowers at their peak in the mountains in July. All the photos you’ve seen of people in the mountains in the summer have them wearing shorts as they stroll through fields of multi-colored blooms. It’s July, it’s summer and it’s always warm—right? You pack the shorts and a light jacket, and off you go. Did you realize the elevation to where you’re headed is 11,000 feet, and at sunrise those shorts and that light jacket will leave you quite chilly? Do you know that the wind often kicks up, and the flowers don’t often stand still? Do you have a flash to be able to stop their movement? Moral— know what to expect.
The national parks offer so much to the prepared photographer. Don’t overlook making stitched panoramas to add diversity to your images. If the scene has bright highlights and deep shadows, bracket the exposures and run them through high dynamic range software to expand the tonal range from what a single exposure would net. Shoot early and late—sunrise and sunset are the best times to be out in the field. Visit and revisit each location many times to become intimate with it. Learn the nuances of the light. Enjoy, have fun, take lots of photos and respect the parks so those who come after you leave can also enjoy them.